Los Angeles Lakers offseason, roster, contracts, LeBron James retirement, future, Austin Reaves, Kyrie Irving, free agency – TOTOCC
It was a trade deadline that saved their season, even if the Los Angeles Lakers would end up being swept out of the championship race by the Denver Nuggets.
At the time though, even amid the Lakers being widely celebrated as one of the bigger winners on deadline day, LeBron James couldn’t hide his initial disappointment.
Disappointment that the deadline had passed and the team had failed in its trade bid for Kyrie Irving, who instead went off to the Dallas Mavericks.
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“I can’t sit here and say I’m not disappointed on not being able to land such a talent, but [also] someone that I had great chemistry with, and know I got great chemistry with on the floor, that can help you win championships, in my mind, in my eyes,” James told ESPN at the time.
“But my focus is shifted now. My focus is shifted back to where it should be and that’s this club now and what we have in the locker room.”
What the Lakers had in the locker room was somehow enough to take them to the Western Conference Finals, a stunning achievement given as of April 3 they were given just a 0.2 per cent chance of making the playoffs.
It may have not been the dream scenario James wanted but it was enough to salvage what otherwise looked like yet another reminder of the team’s crippling weakness — its lack of depth.
Now, the Lakers find themselves at a crossroads and with two potential paths to go down.
Which path they take could very well be determined by how James’ comments earlier this week are perceived.
In case you missed it, the Lakers superstar made it clear to ESPN reporter Dave McMenamin after the Game 4 loss to the Nuggets that he was seriously considering retirement.
Unfortunately for Denver coach Michael Malone, that means another few days of headlines dominated by LeBron and the Lakers.
As former NBA player J.J. Redick said on ESPN’s ‘First Take’ on Wednesday, James is “one of the most calculated athletes in the history of professional sports”.
He doesn’t waste a word, or as Redick himself put it: “Everything he does is for a reason”. “And whether this is to put a little bit of pressure on the Lakers to improve the roster… whatever it is, there’s a reason he did this,” added Redick.
ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst said he believes James was “essentially sending a message” to the Lakers by casting doubt over his immediate playing future.
“There is something for the Lakers to consider here,” Windhorst said in response.
“The Lakers have four or five weeks to consider the direction they are going with this team. They’ve got to make a decision about whether they want to hold this team together.”
That starts with answering one tough question.
THE ‘TOUGH’ QUESTION LAKERS MUST ANSWER THIS SUMMER
Going back to those two paths the Lakers could go down, one is far riskier than the other. The ceiling is sky-high — but in a deceiving way — and the floor is frighteningly low.
James’ comments on Tuesday could be the start of him planting the seeds for another potential play at Irving — or any other third star alongside Anthony Davis.
But do the Lakers really want to risk repeating the same mistake they made in trading for Russell Westbrook, leaving the rest of the supporting cast significantly weakened?
“That’s going to be the philosophical question for the Lakers,” The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor said on The Mismatch Podcast this week.
“Do we truly go all-in here, this coming offseason, on Kyrie or somebody else? Do we go all-in with some of these future assets around LeBron and around AD or do you maintain some of these picks and try to instil some youth in your team and maintain some long-term flexibility?
“That’s going to be the tough question for the Lakers because they’re looking further down the horizon for the Luka’s and the Giannis’ — that is their dream. Not giving up a first-round pick for a guy that has blown up every franchise he’s been a part of.”
Of course, it’s harsh to blame Irving for any of the problems in Dallas. That has more to do with what the Mavericks gave up to get him after losing Jalen Brunson in free agency.
So, you can blame the front office for that one. Outside of that though, O’Connor has a point that Irving brings plenty of red flags off the court too.
But if that is what LeBron wants is that what LeBron gets, even if it means somewhat sacrificing the team’s long-term vision in the process?
“This is going to be the test,” The Ringer’s Chris Vernon said on The Mismatch.
“This is going to be the, ‘Do we stand up against LeBron the GM?’. They did the last time when he went public, they finally stood up against him and they in turn created the best team around him. Not by getting the guys he wanted but by making the trades they wanted to make.
“He’s going to want Kyrie. He wants Kyrie and has said he wants Kyrie. We know LeBron the GM is not who you want to rock with but are they going to succumb to that or make the best decision for the franchise? That’s going to be a very interesting question this off-season. “Pelinka did a very good job of throwing together a roster that was capable of winning and was a big winner of the trade deadline. But that wasn’t a LeBron operation. That wasn’t going out and getting his hand-picked guys he wanted and in fact, he was vocal about his disappointment in not getting Kyrie in the off-season.
“I think it’s all been this idea that will eventually take place. That’s going to be them squaring off. Are they going to do what he wants to do or what is for the best?”
WHY ‘HIGHLY UNLIKELY’ KYRIE MOVE MAY BE JUST A PIPE DREAM
Clearing up enough cap space to sign Irving is going to be a problem anyway. The Lakers certainly won’t be able to produce the $47 million ($A71.2m) maximum salary Irving could get elsewhere.
Instead, according to ESPN’s front office insider Bobby Marks, the Lakers could create up to $30.5 million ($A46.2m) by waiving Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba, not exercising Malik Beasley’s team option and renouncing free agents D’Angelo Russell, Lonnie Walker IV and Rui Hachimura.
At most, L.A. could bump that out to $35 million ($53.0m) by trading Max Christie and their first-round pick. But even still, that figure would fall well short of $47 million ($A71.2m).
So, would Irving himself be willing to sacrifice anywhere between $12 ($A18.1m) and $17 million ($A25.8m) to play in Los Angeles? And would that be the right way to construct the roster anyway?
“You can basically put all your eggs in the Kyrie Irving basket,” Marks said on his offseason guide for the Lakers.
“We’re just using him as the name because that’s going to be the name that’s going to be linked. You can create $30 million ($A45.5m) in room. You can do that… we’ve seen the downfall of what happens to your depth there.
“Would I do it for the playoffs? Certainly. Remember, you’ve got to play 82 games and when you have a roster of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a player like Kyrie Irving who have not played more than 65 games in the last three seasons, good luck.
“You’ll be lucky just to get into the play-in again here. You’ll have a depth of all minimum players like we saw this past season.”
Then you add in the headache of the new collective bargaining agreement, which will make it harder to build around a superstar trio like James, Davis and Irving.
The league is doing that by introducing a second salary cap apron, which is $17.5 million ($A26.5m) over the tax line.
According to ESPN, “those teams will lose several key team building mechanisms, including the taxpayer mid-level exception, utilising cash in trades, moving first-round picks in drafts that are seven years away, signing free agent players in the buyout market and taking on more money than is being sent out in trades”.
There are a lot of specifics to unpack as to how those changes will impact big-spending teams in the NBA and ESPN produced an in-depth breakdown on just that if it is of further interest.
Put in the simplest of terms, it just means it will be even more difficult for the Lakers to retain the level of depth that helped take them to the Western Conference Finals in the first place.
“People have to remember that there is a new collective bargaining agreement that is coming into place, starting July 1st, where it makes it extremely, extremely difficult to have three players earning $120 ($A181.8m) to $130 million ($A197.0m) and then to build around them, especially when you don’t have draft picks going forward,” Marks said.
“I know they have the 17th and the 47th pick but they owe New Orleans a pick in 2024 and owe Utah a pick in 2027.”
It is yet another reason why Marks thinks it is “highly unlikely” that Irving will be running out in the purple and gold next season.
OTHER STARS L.A. COULD TARGET… AND FREE AGENTS THEY MUST KEEP
Of course, Irving is not the only big name the Lakers could target, with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst floating free agent Fred VanVleet as one more realistic option.
“He could be an option for the Lakers and probably closer to that $30 million number,” Windhorst said on his podcast this week.
“Fred VanVleet is now represented by Rich Paul… I don’t think Rich Paul is going to take him to L.A. for a discount but I think that has to be taken under advisement and there are other players they could be interested in.”
That apparently includes Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young, according to Jovan Buha of The Athletic.
He reported on Wednesday that Lakers brass have had “internal discussions” about what a “hypothetical trade offer” for Young could look like this offseason.
Young is currently under contract through the 2026-27 season though and it is unlikely the Lakers could make a move for him without including James or Davis in any trade package.
Forget the star-chasing though for a second because, as mentioned earlier, this is another path the Lakers could take — running it back.
That will be tricky in the sense that L.A. has 10 free agents this summer, headlined by mid-season acquisition Rui Hachimura and emerging talent Austin Reaves.
Lakers free agents (R = restricted, T = team option)
Troy Brown Jr., D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley (T), Wenyen Gabriel, Rui Hachimura (R), Austin Reaves (R), Dennis Schroder, Tristan Thompson, Lonnie Walker IV and Scotty Pippen Jr. (R)
Multiple reports claim Hachimura and Reaves are the “priorities” for the Lakers.
In fact, NBA insider Marc Stein reported there is “frankly no scenario” where Reaves won’t be on the team next season.
“Even if a team or two out there does decide to put a higher offer on the table than the maximum four-year, $51 million ($A77.3m) deal that the Lakers can offer, all indications are that the Lakers will match whatever they must to keep the restricted free agent, who has emerged as L.A.’s top shot-creator not named LeBron James,” wrote Stein on his Substack.
There is a possibility they could keep both and also sign Irving but as Marks explains, it would require cooperation from not just Dallas and Irving but also D’Angelo Russell.
So, it is “highly unlikely” according to the front office expert.
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“It would come out of the cooperation of the Dallas Mavericks who don’t have to cooperate with anything and it would basically come out of the cooperation of D’Angelo Russell, who would need to agree to a sign-and-trade,” Marks said.
“Mo Bamba and Malik Beasley’s guarantees are before free agency starts. So unless you have a side deal with the Mavericks and Irving before everything starts, basically you have to have Russell agree to a sign-and-trade, Irving agrees to a sign-and-trade, whatever picks are coming out.
“It hard caps you, Irving basically comes at $30 million. Can you do a sign-and-trade? What is the goal for the Dallas Mavericks? To get the 17th pick and the 2029 Laker pick? To have now lost Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyrie Irving and replaced him with D’Angelo Russell.
“That ain’t happening. So the likelihood of Kyrie Irving in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform is highly, highly, highly unlikely.
“What you’re likely going to see is the Lakers prioritise signing Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura. That is priority one here for both those players.”
LAKERS GM REVEALS ‘HIGH PRIORITY’ FOR ROSTER MOVING FORWARD
Once that is sorted, the Lakers can then turn their attention towards extension candidates — headlined by Davis, who is eligible for a three-year, $167.5 million ($A253.8m) max extension starting on August 4.
Although the five-year, $190 million ($A287.9m) max extension Davis signed back in 2020 included an early termination option prior to the fifth year of the contract in 2024-25.
Russell is also eligible for a two-year, $67.6 million extension before June 30 while Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt are other notable extension candidates.
So, with all of that in mind, what is the early indication from the Lakers’ front office as to which direction they will go in? Well, GM Rob Pelinka seems intent on running it back.
Speaking to reporters at his end-of-season media opportunity on Wednesday, Pelinka stressed the need for roster “continuity” similar to that which helped the Nuggets to the top this season.
“After the trade deadline, we had one of the top records in the league. I think keeping that continuity is going to be very important,” Pelinka said.
“We ultimately got knocked out by a team that has great continuity. That’s a high priority for us. We feel like we have a group of special players in the locker room. They enjoy playing with each other.
“Darvin [Ham] enjoys coaching them. We know there’s more growth and improvement in that group, especially if we get a training camp together. So, I would say it’s a high priority to keep our core players together.”
Whether that ends up happening remains to be seen and if it’s worth anything, former Laker Kyle Kuzma certainly appeared sceptical when reacting to the news on Twitter.
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